Squirrel's Secret Spot No: 6 (Canals of England and Wales)

on Sunday, July 22, 2007

1.The Crew of the Oliver Cromwell sans Photographer; 2. Lowering the boat in a lock; 3. Raising the boat through a lock and James' shoes about to get soaking wet 30 seconds later; 4. Have you heard of Hot Cross Buns? It originated here in Banbury and this is the Banbury Cross; 5. This farm dog taught us how to play fetch with it; 6. Hotel Canal Boats; 7. learning about Industrial History; 8. Making friends along the way; 9. Ah, the peace and solitude at night. (Photocredit: All by LGS except No:9 which is a postcard).

For a long time when I should have been studying for my second year exams, I was actually looking at travel brochures and day-dreaming about having a holiday on a long, narrow canal boat. I wanted a lazy, relaxing holiday with the wonderful company of close friends and to enjoy the clean air and to bask in the sun and a canal boat holiday seemed to fit the bill.

While juggling my exams, I managed to organize the holiday on a canal boat called the Oliver Cromwell on the Oxford Canal. I had hand picked James, Katherine and Julie to be my crewmates as the close confines of a canal boat is one that you wish to share only with people you got on well together.

We picked up the boat on Lower Heyworth with great excitement. Spent an exciting hour learning how to handle the boat and then we were off. Within 5 minutes we were having a great big argument. On a canal that only runs north and south, the crew were split on whether to go north or south! It appeared as if the cramp quarters had already made everyone snappy and crabby. The decision was finally made on the call of a coin toss and we headed north.

Ah, soon the bickering was forgotten as we cruised along at 4 miles per hour. The anticipation of the next 7 days intoxicated us even more than the beers in our hands. It was as I had imagined. This illusion, however, only lasted until we reached the first lock. We had been briefed about locks which are the means by which canal boats can be raised or lowered between sections of the canal which are at different heights. Locks are fascinating bits of engineering history. They can also be back-breakingly hard to operate. First you have to maneuver these heavy wooden gates and then you have to use a key to open the paddles that control the water levels. Did I think this was going to be a lazy holiday? It was hard work. A Good Samaritan who witnessed our pitiful efforts of trying to push the gates open and close, advised us that it was actually easier to sit on the beams of the gates and to push with our legs. Bouncing on the beams on our behinds also helped if the gates were stucked. We tried it and it worked like a charm and we happily operated several gates that first day, only to discover in the evening that our buttocks had turned blue-black and was covered with painful wooden splinters!

My other illusions about the canal trip were similarly exposed before long. Clean fresh air was replaced by miles of farmland reeking of cow dung. Basking in the sun? Did I forget this was England where rain is like a friend that drops in unannounced all the time and often outstays his welcome. And when night came, so did the mosquitoes.

Yet despite all these setbacks, it was one of the most enjoyable holiday I have ever had. The fun was in the people that you met along the way; the fellow novices, the old salts and the local characters. There was freedom in deciding where to go and when to stop. The historical pubs along the way were great places to stop and sample local hospitality, food and beer. It was away to learn about the history of the country especially around the period of the Industrial Revolution for which these canals were built to serve by bringing coal from the Midlands to London.

It was the surprises that awaited you at every bend. A water vole. A heron. It is waking up in the morning to the sound of cow bells in the adjacent farm or sleeping with visions of the stars and the sound of the crickets. It was having picnics on the boat or in the fields with close friends. It was terrific.

In the end, the holiday came to an end too quickly and I have been enamored with canal boats, their history and associated crafts and culture ever since. The Oxford Canal is not even one of the more interesting canals. I would love to go on the Llangollen Canal with its Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in which the canal boat would glide across the valley more than 40 m above the Dee River and to glide into Llangollen town during their celebration of Celtic culture in music, poetry and dance, the Eisteddfod Festival. That would be so wonderful.


Josie said...

LGS, that looks wonderful. I can't think of anything I would enjoy more. I am planning to take a similar boat ride this summer. but it will only be for a few hours, not a few days, sadly. Wonderful photographs too. That dog is a hoot...!

I hope to get back to England some day, and I would definitely want to take one of those boat tours. Thank you for sharing that.


leslie said...

I can never see a canal boat without it bringing to mind a childhood book, "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame. While you wait for your next vacation, read this book.
My dog is a crazy black and white border collie like the one in the picture.
Thanks for all the good stuff you bring to mind...

leslie said...

I watched the canal boats at Stratford-Upon-Avon and thought it'd be great fun to do what you did. Friends of mine who live in Andover, England (near Stonehenge) have done that with another couple who are close friends. Thanks for letting us in on the secret to getting the gates open, in case Josie and I go and get stuck. :D

leslie said...

OH! And I've been to Llangollen and it is one of the most picturesque spots in Wales! And the Welsh ice cream...well, if Josie and I go there, they'll be sold out by the time we waddle out of town.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Have a good boat trip and tel us about it. Do you still have family in England?

I have read "The Wind in the Willows" and you are absolutely right in that it is that sort of countryside that the book is set in. Border Collies are such wonderful and intellegent dogs but also full of energy. I hope you have lots of space for it to run! :)

leslie (CAN),
I don't know if its everyone's cup of tea but I certainly enjoyed it and I suspect you will as well. Are you and josie planning for a trip? Oooo. I've never been to Llangollen but I hope to one day and I'll try your Welsh ice cream then.

Cheryl said...

I knew nothing about canal boats. What an adventure for you and an education for me.

geewits said...

What a unique and interesting vacation! Thanks for sharing. I felt all Tom Sawyerish.

leslie said...

Leslie USA, here. Click on my name in this post, and it will take you to my border collie's blog. No kidding, he has a blog. And he makes sure I get lots of exercise!!

Janice Thomson said...

This sure brought back memories Lgs! I had an English room-mate years ago who was raised in Kent. Her dad had a canal boat and the stories she could tell about the locks LOL. Her dad also told me the history of the canals which was so fascinating. Every weekend come rain or shine her folks spent on the boat. She said most of us here would be weaklings when it came to maneuvering the locks. Loved this post Lgs.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Canal boats are such a "romantic" wat to travel .....that's if you get on well with your crew mates. Otherwise it is close quarter combat! :) Try it if you have the chance.

That's an interesting thought, associating it with Tom Sawyer. I understand what you mean but it has to be a English Victorian equivalent. But I kid you not when I tell you it is a working vacation.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Leslie (USA),
Thanks for directing me to Duece's Blog. He is a handsome dog and it looks like Mom really gives him a great time with all his canine pals.

I think your friend is so lucky. It's a bit of living history too. I've gone through tunnels where two guys have to lie on the roof of the boat and "walk the boat through the tunnel so as not to let the boat hit the sides. It's all fun but we remember a time when this was serious work and an important part of the Industrial revolution. Locks are a funny business and I have some stories I could tell.....perhaps sometime. :)

Odat said...

very very cool!!!
Hey did you see where they took squirrels into custody for being spies in Iran??? I thought about you...lol


Iranian news agencies this week reported the capture of 14 squirrels equipped with espionage systems along the border.

Robert Baer, who worked for the CIA in Iran, intelligence expert James Bamford and wildlife professor John Koprowski, who co-authored the book North American Tree Squirrels, discuss historical attempts to use animals in intelligence gathering and the likelihood that the U.S. or any other country could count on squirrels to retrieve any useful information.


HeiressChild said...

hi LGS, you are such a great story teller. i don't mean story teller as in "liar," but story teller as in a great author. *lol* this makes me want to go on one, and i don't do water or boats.

leslie and josie, take pillows for when you push open the gates so you won't have splinters in your butts. *lol*

the walking man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the walking man said...

OK too many typos in the first post but let me get this straight, your on holiday and all you can do is stand because your butts are black and blue from working the locks and some one had to lift your tail to pull splinters out?

Personally I would have gotten "lost" and sailed the channel to France where I could at least sit while being abused by them for not knowing anything in their language other than how to ask for the men's washroom.

Butt then we all have our own ideas of fun, even if it includes methane and pies from the cows that lined the canal.

Nice pictures though



eastcoastdweller said...

What a cooincidence! I just finished reading the Canada entry in my encyclopedia and canal naturally follows that.

You have such an interesting, informative blog! You're quite a squirrel -- please stay away from the road!

eastcoastdweller said...

Leslie's comment got me thinking about a book that I read many years ago -- wish I could remember the title. It was a children's book, but one of the most haunting, poignant books I've ever read.

A couple of modern children were playing in a boat on an English canal and found themselves back in time, in the Industrial Revolution, when such canals were at their peak. They met a girl, a factory worker girl ... and the sad story continues from there.

Open Grove Claudia said...

Boy that sounds and looks wonderful. I went with the in-laws down a canal in France. (Are you shuttering at the thought? I am.) It was fairly wretched.

I'm glad you had a nice time. What are you holiday plans for this year?

MedStudentWife said...

golly - I sailed for a zillion years (maybe not quite that long).. but knowing me - this is the type of boating I would just love to do all over :)

Hmmm - you ever thought about all the other canal experiences...hmmm..... even the Rideau Canal, which I have never done by boat from start to finish. And I hear the Welland Canal system is very nice (and I want to do that as well)

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

All I know is one day, a couple of guys in black suits came up to me and said, "Squirrel, how would you like to see the world?!" They call it recruitment. Hahaha.

No but seriously, thanks for the fascinating info. At least recon is one better than my rat brethren being used as mine detectors.

Wow! You did read the part about the bruised buttocks with splinters and the smell of cow dung, didn't you? And still you want to go? Maybe I should try my hand at a sales job after all! LoL.

Well, sailing to the south of France would be great too. I guess canal boating forces you to take a slower pace (4 miles per hour), gets you in the countryside, gives you a lot of excercise but compensates with good food and beer and gives you a window to a period about 130 years ago.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Thanks for your concern but I can cope with roads. Heck, I have received training for infiltration of military establishments (see odat's comment).

That book you mention sounds wonderful. I like the concept and would definately read it if I could. There was an interesting sub-culture or way of life for anyone who worked the canals.

But what about the picnics with the local cheeses, french bread and wine? Okay, it was probably wet and miserable. I suppose you got to like the rain to enjoy it.

I did investigate the Rideau Canal by both bicycle and car. There's a lot of history there too. Interesting but much fewer pubs! I am also familiar with the canals in and around London, UK. and I visited the C & O canal in Washigton, D.C. I also went to the Welland but only to see the locks so I did not really experience that one. You sail? I suck at sailing. Pretty good at capsizing. :)

Josie said...

LGS, one of my best friends lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. I have visited her in Scotland, and travelled through England -- by train.

leslieUSA said...



Leslie USA here. This link will take you to a bookstore that has a feature called "Stump the Bookseller", where you give them bits of memory about a book, and they tell you what the book is.
Hope they connect you with your book. It's a fun site.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

I didn't go to Scotland. Hope you liked it. It's supposed to be wild and wind swept up near Aberdeen.

leslie USA and eastcoastdweller,
I excitedly wait to see if you can successfully identify that book's title.

Gina said...

Lone Grey! This is sooo super cool. You had a vision. Splendor in the grass...or canal. And then the reality replaced it with some rather difficult situations, sensations and stinks. But in the end...the reality created an adventure and worthwhile memory.

Bring you closer to your handpicks, did it? I love the way you compared your expectation to the difficulties. Made it real.

Something else. Where I am from, everthing seems to be a bout getting somewhere quickly. How nice to take it down to 4 mph. Even with the worst weather and work, just having an experience with nature at a slower pace and with all of it's wild ways...really is a holiday,

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

yes. having a holiday at 4 km an hour (walking pace) is certainly an experience. I remember a cartoon which shows two cyclist cycling past a dragon and one says to the other, 'It's amazing what you notice when you aren't zooming by in a car!" The other thing was the wonderful long conversations with friends.

eastcoastdweller said...

Thank you, Leslie, I'll visit that site immediately.

CS said...

That looks just fabulous. Have you ever read the book by Jerome K. Jerome called "Three Men in a Boat"? It is from the turn of the century about some men who tour the English waterways in a boat I always pictured looking like this one. It is very funny.

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

you know, I haven't read that book. I assumed it was about a sea voyage. I know its strange but now that I know it is a freshwater journey, I think I will read it. Am I a salt bigot?

CS said...

A salt bigot! That's really funny. More likely, the idea of it just appeals to you more now that you know the connection with your own life.

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